By Carl Hedinger
At some point, you’ve likely sampled bibimbap, sipped on soju, hummed along to a K-pop sing, or danced like a fool to Gangnam Style (sorry for the reminder—we’re trying to forget it, too). But if you’re thinking of visiting South Korea, there’s still so much more to learn about the tiny yet vibrant country. For first-time South Korea visitors, we’ve narrowed down this list to the 10 most important things you should know before you go. And don’t worry: It’s not all life-saving or anything.
Come hungry for more than kimchi
Korean food tests quite a few boundaries, from the shock value of eating live octopus to the spice factor of those green peppers many restaurants serve on the side. Eat all the barbecue you can but save room for bibimbap, dak galbi and countless other dishes well worth sampling while in South Korea.
Push this button for service
You don’t have to worry about making eye contact with a waiter or getting asked a question in mid-bite. Many restaurants have a push button at each table; you’ll hear a prompt “Nehhhh!” after employing it. If you don’t have this option, you can loudly shout “Chogee Yo!” (many meanings, but in this context, “hey” or “over here”) to get someone’s attention.
3. Take off your shoes
Pack all the best socks you own because in Korea, it’s customary to take off your shoes when entering someone’s home. There’s usually a designated shelf or cupboard to stow your kicks. Even many Korean hotels provide slippers so that you can honor the tradition in your room.
4. There’s more to see than Seoul
Get away from the megapolis that is Seoul and discover a whole new world in the provinces outside the capital city. There are larger cities like Busan, Gwangju, Daegu and Daejeon, but also plenty of small towns worth exploring. Just don’t spend all of your trip in one place, because each one has its own character and cavalcade of things to enjoy.
5. Leave time to explore the outdoors
South Korea has tons of coastline and its east coast has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, with Yang Yang in Gangwon Province and Haeundae in Busan being two of the most famous. Then there are the country’s beautiful national parks—20 of them to be exact—spanning across the entire country. Go hiking or hit the beach. Just try to experience the wonder of South Korea’s outdoors.
6. It’s worth giving the language a try
The ornate characters of the Korean language might seem impossible to master, but with only 26 characters to learn and a whole slew of apps waiting to help, you can learn the Korean alphabet in no time. That’ll help you slur together words you don’t understand at 3am when the soju has fully taken hold. It’ll also get you through places that don’t have English signs. And don’t worry too much about pronunciation: Korean is difficult to pronounce and regional differences make things even harder for prospective speakers, so you can’t let failure keep you from trying. A solid attempt is usually enough to get you in nicely with some of the locals who’ll certainly appreciate the effort.
7. Korean saunas are awesome
Fans of Conan O’Brien will remember seeing the tall, ginger host getting smacked around with his comedian friend Steven Yuen. This actually happens if you sign up for the rougher stuff. Otherwise, Korean saunas still offer some pure relaxation in the form of hot and cold pools, cold and super hot rooms, and many more ways to get your chill on.
8. There are so many great festivals
Go to them all. Or, realistically, as many as you can. Throughout the year, there are festivals surrounding food, flowers, mud, fireworks, and some combine all these themes. You’ll always find something fun to do, no matter what time of year you visit South Korea. Just eat first and get dirty afterward, okay?
9. People will push (and elbow) you—but it’s OK
If you can decipher the words “Pali-pali,” you should probably get out of the way because that means a group of people are on the move and they might not be able to stop on a dime for you. Pushing and shoving in busy places is just an accepted way of keeping things moving. You may just have to do that yourself when running late, so let this one go.
10. Practice your squats
I’m not just talking about exercise here. When you have to go to the bathroom in some parts of the country, you may not have the option to sit down on a seat. Surely, you can find some videos or classes that will help you prep. Not every toilet will be a squatter but coming with this knowledge will at least prepare you for the moment when that’s your only option.